Blackwood's Sensation Tale, Book review., Books, Detective fiction, Enlightenment, History, Horror, In A Glass Darkly, Napoleon, Premature Burial, Romanticism, Sheridan Le Fanu, Talleyrand, The Room in the Dragon Volant
[“The Room in the Dragon Volant” is one of the most accomplished works of suspense ever written, and one should therefore well heed the warning that the following contains plot spoilers. Ed]
The best story in Sheridan Le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly (1872) – “The Room in the Dragon Volant” – is the only one not to feature a supernatural entity. Indeed, the story will conclude with a merciless application of Humean scepticism, everything mysterious and erroneous will be roundly explained, and the fabulous magician will turn out to be a corpse, leaving one to ponder gloomily on the significance that the adventuring hero was felled by that emblem of enlightenment – a “cup of coffee” – rather than the more traditional “flying dragon.” No dark corners will remain in this narrative; and yet if Le Fanu misquoted from St. Paul to promise that we will view ourselves “in a glass darkly,” in “Dragon Volant” we see human darkness all too clearly, and enlightenment is a far from happy or rewarding prospect:
As the well-worn phrase goes, I was a sadder if not a wiser man… My after life was ultimately formed by the shock I had then received. Those impressions led me – but not till after many years – to happier though not less serious thoughts; and I have deep reason to be thankful for the all-merciful Ruler of events, for an early and terrible lesson in the ways of sin.
Compare this to the sunnier days of ignorance and folly:
What a number of things had happened within the last two hours! what a variety of strange and vivid pictures were crowded together in that brief space! What an adventure was before me!
I have read several accounts of “Dragon Volant” which sneer at the “stupidity” of Richard Beckett in not spotting the generous helping of clues which warn of his approaching disaster, but this smarty-pants told-you-so-ing disregards the fact that the con which ensnares Beckett is partially a fiction of his own making. James Walton’s 2007 study Vision and Vacancy compares the story to the slapstick theatrics of the nineteenth-century Harlequinade and notes of the initially “cadaverous” Colonel Gillarde that “it seems as if he, like the other members of the commedia cast, has been brought to life by Harlequin-Beckett’s magical thinking.” If Beckett is himself a creative force behind the fraud, then he is a significant variation upon the mere sucker, but in any case the tale becomes something of an endorsement for his particularly model of stupidity. We are implicitly invited to compare his early “youth, conscious strength, rashness, passion, pursuit, the adventure!” with the comfortless wisdom of his eventual enlightenment. Indeed, for Beckett, enlightenment will entail a devastating humiliation, a symbolic castration and the wholesale annihilation of his established selfhood.
Richard Beckett may be the kid brother of other notable dupes from nineteenth century fiction – including the narrator of Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” (1845), Captain Delano from Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855), and Pip from Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860). But these characters are worthy of our scorn – Poe’s narrator is a voyeur, Delano is a racist and probably a pirate, and Pip is a snob. Beckett’s only crimes are to be gallivanting, romantic, and Byronic. He wants to run off with a beautiful woman, cuckold her husband, and enjoy a wild, romping holiday in Switzerland spending her fortune. Aside from all but the most po-faced feminist harridans, who would not extend their heartiest wishes to Beckett? One suspects that “Dragon Volant” succeeds as a tale largely because the reader, like Beckett, simply ignores all the glaring forewarnings of his catastrophe, suspending their wits in the vain hope that his escapade will succeed.
“Maddened” by his desire for the Countess, Beckett had assumed that they were destined for a Swiss love nest. Yet if he had lain awake all night with her vision “always in the dark, before me,” his fate was to lie incarcerated in a coffin, bitterly aware that the vision “always in the dark, before me” would now never be enjoyed bodily. The death-in-life induced by the Mortis Imago (which arrives straight from John Galt’s “The Buried Alive,” 1821) is, we are told, necessary because if Beckett had died with the drug in his system, then incriminating traces would remain in his stomach. The drug also spares the fraudsters the unpleasantness of a straightforward murder. The physical and psychological torments which would have wracked Beckett in the darkness of his coffin are therefore not particularly intended by the fraudsters, and Beckett’s heartbreak is actually a very impersonal and businesslike affair. Indeed, when Beckett is finally incapacitated, the fraudsters will not taunt him but refer to him as if he was unconscious. In a picture of exquisite disinterest which contrasts starkly with the “lovers’ raptures and declamations” of old, the Countess “sat no longer looking at me…”
Whilst we may attach great emotional theatre to Beckett’s masquerade, to the backstage fraudsters he is just an object, like a doll or a puppet. His doom is unworthy of sorrow, guilt, or even derision, and it is only ever referred to in passing as “unprofitable.” His heartbreak was not even personalised – he was merely one amongst “other intended victims.” When the police storm the Count’s quarters, they are apparently not searching for an individual but “English and other goods.” Surveying the incapacitated Beckett, the policeman Carmaignac has “no recognition in his eyes.” The narrative is imprecise over whether Beckett’s body is arranged horizontally or “perpendicular,” and Carmaignac mutters over this disarrayed mass – an unstrung puppet bereft of a distinguishing costume – that there is “Nothing of the kind there.” The police will identify Beckett by his visiting cards and pocket-handkerchief, rather than his physical features, and this inhuman litter will find near relations in the glass eye and dental plate which comprise the mortal remains of Gabriel Gaillarde.
The fraudsters have shaped a dashing, Byronic hero out of Beckett’s raw material – a form animated by his dreams and narcissism (“I was conscious of being good-looking…”) – and when their fraud fails, Beckett is suddenly left without an identity. To Parisian society, he remains an “object” – not “an object of considerable interest” but “the object of a good-natured but contemptuous merriment.” The phoenix which emerges from Beckett’s ashes is “a balourd, a benet, un ane [a numskull, a booby, a jackass].” If he was marketed to the reader as a gallivanting adventurer, he will be sold to Paris “in caricatures.”
The transformation of the bankrupt and chaotic post-Waterloo France into a realm of adventure, romance, and high society – and one scarcely scratched by the Napoleonic disaster – is made possible by Beckett’s detachment and ignorance. British visitors to France often cut hapless and ridiculous figures: Napoleon seized about 10,000 British tourists as prisoners of war in 1803 (which was not amusing at all); a flood of French satirical prints ridiculed the English tourists who arrived in Paris after 1814 as socially clueless; and the holidaying hero of William Maginn’s 1823 Blackwood’s tale “A Traveller’s Week” regards the French town in which he finds himself with utter loathing (“all squalidness, stench, and clamour”), whilst making a complete fool of himself in front of its citizenry. Beckett – who will find himself at home in this world of “caricatures” – thus contributes to an established tradition of British idiots upon French soil.
The conception of Beckett as a dim bumptious foreigner will lead the French state to merely use him as the bait in a sting, rather than recruit him as a spy. He has, of course, been previously involved in some rather unbecoming antics – such as his “reckless charge” through a series of carriages – although, at the time, this picaresque larking about did not seem incongruous with a story dipped in moonlight. We may acknowledge with hindsight that Beckett was, after all, just a common idiot – a Boswell rather than a Byron – but we may hesitate to join in the laughter of Paris, and sense that “balourd” is rather too tight a costume for Beckett.
“Dragon Volant” possesses an elaborate multidimensional structure, but one does not particularly care for any sort of dew to clarify the geometry of this cobweb. Suffice to say, that most appearances in the story are shadowed by an conflicting reality: Beckett, the Napoleonic hero agitating and intriguing against the aristocracy, who is repeatedly associated with lowly “grooms and hostlers,” is actually an aristocrat conspired against by “the class who live by their wits”; his beloved is an actress and her pearls are paste; the dastardly villain will eventually save his life; and the Marquis is a three-decker deceit as spy, nave, and genuine agent provocateur. If the fraudsters had assumed that they were scripting Beckett’s fate (“I conjure you, sit down; sit in this chair”), they were equally puppets in a performance scripted by the Marquis.
In his ingenuity, the unscrupulous Marquis somewhat resembles the nimble-footed diplomat and spy Talleyrand, who had managed to serve under Louis XVI, Napoleon, and the restored Bourbons, freely switching sides and escaping the consequences of his old affiliations. Napoleon once raged of Talleyrand that “I could break him like a glass, but it’s not worth the trouble,” and the Marquis likewise escapes “scot-free.” Perhaps the reader finds Beckett sympathetic because his early adventures unfold smoothly and easily, investing him with something of an enchanted quality. It will transpire, of course, that Beckett’s effortless progress was actually the result of unimaginably intricate planning, and that his ostensibly kindly guardian, the Marquis, was merely allowing him to play at being an adventurer.
Parentage is generally a sore point in In a Glass Darkly. Whether or not Laura desires the perilous lips of Carmilla, a regime of older figures and their suffocating authority will protect her from the conflated forces of both vampire attack and her own desire. Being drained of blood by a bewitching vampire may well be a happier fate for Laura than returning to her “solitary” life within a Styrian schloss. In the height of their torments, Laura, Judge Harbottle, and Captain Barton are all reduced to the infantile state of being confined to their bedrooms, and constantly watched or attended by others, which vaguely recalls the fears of children about being left on their own at night. Yet parents in In a Glass Darkly are ineffectual or themselves vampiric authorities. Whilst Reverend Jennings pleads in vain to be saved from his little imaginary friend, his preposterous and overblown terror of this mischievous monkey – whose naughtiest action is to suggest to the Reverend that he throw himself down a mine shaft – probably indicates that he is uncomfortable around children.
“Dragon Volant” indulges the antique desire to conquer the mother – to reach for forbidden things – before unleashing the terrible reality of the devouring father (one may indeed find Beckett’s love a little inhuman – too much Freudian symbolism and not enough emotional life). Our Byronic and picaresque hero is exposed as a depressingly familiar Modernist subject: alienated, confounded, and alone in a hostile world with not very much free will. The sad achievement of “Dragon Volant” is to annex a Wasteland, and the reader may find the raw reality of its conclusion too awful to stomach. One may reject the Marquis’ backstage world of low trickery and hark back to the impossible moonlight and melodrama of Beckett’s adventure. “Dragon Volant” truly recalls the despair of awakening prematurely from a wondrous dream and wishing that it could have lasted forever.
[There is a very worthy Le Fanu website here. Ed.]